Intensity modulated radiation therapy can greatly reduce skin burns in women with breast cancer

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Medical experts from around the country gathered in October to explore groundbreaking developments in cancer control. The first integrated annual scientific meeting hosted by the Canadian Association of Radiation Oncology and the Canadian Organization of Medical Physicists met in Toronto, drawing over 600 attendees for sessions on innovative new technology, patient care and new research technologies for various types of cancer.

Among the many highlights of the joint conference entitled “Image Guided and Adaptive Radiation Therapies” was the free public lecture. Radiation oncologist at the Odette Cancer Centre at Sunnybrook, Jean-Philippe Pignol, M.D., Ph.D., was joined by Suzy Cayley and Isabelle Dusastre, directors of the Kelly Shires Breast Cancer Foundation to discuss the physical, emotional, mental and financial battles those diagnosed with breast cancer face today, and a new radiation technique aimed to maximize the quality of life for breast cancer patients.

As the most frequently diagnosed cancer among Canadian females, breast cancer affects many thousands of women and their families each year. One of the most active areas of study today, breast cancer researchers are not only looking for the cause of this disease in order to make it preventable for future generations, but some researchers are finding new and better ways to detect, diagnose and treat breast cancer in an effort to improve the quality of life for those men and women affected.

Last year, Dr. Pignol presented a study that showed how recent dramatic improvements in radiation therapy directly benefit breast cancer patients. Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT), is an innovative new radiation therapy that drastically reduces the skin burns associated with standard radiation treatment. In fact, breast cancer patients who undergo IMRT after surgery are three times less likely to have severe skin reactions from the treatment.

“Using IMRT, we are able to dramatically reduce the painful side effects of radiation, thereby improving the patient’s quality of life,” says Pignol, lead author of the study. “Patients should be aware that breast IMRT has fewer side effects than standard radiation therapy and is now widely available.”

Currently, the standard of care for breast cancer patients is surgical removal of the cancer, followed by radiation to the breast to kill any remaining cells. Unfortunately, in an effort to target the cancer, the whole breast is affected by the radiation treatment causing excess amounts of radiation to certain areas of the breast, increasing the risk of the patient developing sensitive skin that may blister and peel.

The new IMRT treatment allows radiation oncologists to control the intensity of the radiation beams in order to better spare nearby healthy tissue, which in turn minimizes the risk of too much radiation on the whole breast and the severe skin reactions that follow. This method, which is now widely available to patients offers improved convenience as no overnight stay is required.